3 mid-round safeties the Denver Broncos should target in the NFL Draft to upgrade their defense

Cincinnati Bearcats safety Bryan Cook (6) celebrates an interception in the third quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium.
Dec 31, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats safety Bryan Cook (6) celebrates an interception in the third quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have an under-the-radar need at the safety position, despite arguably having the best player at that position in the entire league.

Following Kareem Jackson’s departure, there is a void on this defense next to Justin Simmons. Now, rookie standout Caden Sterns might fill that hole, but even if he does, that will raise serious questions about the depth of the position group.

The Broncos need to draft a safety this season, so who should they target?

Bryan Cook, Cincinnati

If the Broncos want to draft someone who might be able to replace the tone Jackson brought to the Broncos’ defense, Bryan Cook could be an excellent target.

Cook is an ideal scheme fit, as he’s flashed nearly all the versatility you would want from a safety in this Fangio-esque, split-zone heavy defense. He did a good job in 2021 when lined up as the Bearcats’ deep safety in single-high looks, was functional when asked to drop down to the slot, and made the lives of opposing offenses nightmarish whenever he dropped down into the box.

With an aggressive, instinctive and physical style of play, Cook is a valuable asset in the run game, especially for a defensive back. He’s able to key, diagnose and then fit runs very naturally, despite only really being a one-year starter at Cincinnati, and once he fits the run, he can lay the wood. Cook exhibits not only excellent tackling technique, but a ferocious violence at times that add to his value. His motor never runs cool and he’s always looking for contact.

He’s less impressive against the pass, but he’s not bad by any means. That facet of his game falls just short of the sky-high standard set by his run defense.

Cook is an adequate athlete with sufficient enough range to function in those single-high looks, but he’s far from being special athletically. He checks all the boxes you would want him to check, but his traits don’t go above and beyond in any particular area. That sometimes shows up in the slot or when he finds himself in isolated man-coverage situations.

He also is less instinctive when defending the pass, but that may be a symptom of his limited playing time.

Overall, Cook would be an excellent mid-round addition to Denver’s defensive backfield and will replace a lot of what they lost with Kareem Jackson’s departure, even if he needs a little more development before he’s ready to fully take over.

Nick Cross, Maryland

Where Cook is a pretty safe projection for the Broncos, Nick Cross would be more of a gamble that might offer some more untapped potential.

There are plenty of times in which Cross demonstrates some of his high-end athletic traits, such as his impressive long-speed and coverage range, but none of it shows up consistently enough to get you really excited. It appears a large part of the inconsistency has to do with Cross’ sloppy technique and questionable instincts. His technique adds unnecessary extra steps to his movement, stifling that awesome range his athleticism provides. Meanwhile, his suspect instincts can take him out of position or lull him to sleep, leading to busted coverages.

That said, the flashes of his range and his fluid athleticism — things you can’t really teach or develop — are extremely tantalizing, and Denver could view him as being worth the project. Plus, those traits, paired with his physicality, should make him an excellent special-teams player early in his career.

While Cross has some hiccups to his game, they seldom show up when defending the run. Cross’ football IQ might be at its best when he’s forced to defend the run from a deep-safety alignment. He plays that role with the necessary amount of caution, without dulling his explosiveness, and boy, can he be explosive. Cross loves to trigger downhill to deliver a fiery hit that separates the ball from the player and causes havoc.

At the end of the day, Cross is definitely a project though, and Denver might not want to gamble on a project who has questions surrounding their drive, which is the case with Cross.

Zyon McCollum, Sam Houston State

Technically speaking, Zyon McCollum is a cornerback, but there’s a lot of reason to suspect he’d be terrific as a safety.

For starters, following his unreal combine performance, the NFL community has already been discussing his ability as a safety.

“I already had one team saying, ‘we may want to try him at safety,'” Lance Zierlein said on a recent episode of The Athletic Football Show. “What you have with Zyon [McCollum], because of his size, is you have a corner-potential or a safety-potential, and then you test, and now coaches and evaluators all want to say, ‘we really need to dig in on this guy because these are rare, rare numbers, and that’s across the board.'”

Now, on tape, McCollum doesn’t look quite like the all-world athlete he looked like at the combine. He’s still remarkable, but his game lacks some fluidity. His hips are noticeably stiff and he often plays high-hipped. That stiffness might make it so that safety — instead of his college position of cornerback — is his more natural positional fit.

Fortunately for Denver, with a hole at the safety position and Ronald Darby potentially playing elsewhere after the 2022 season, they have needs for both a safety and a developmental boundary corner.

To make that positional transition, McCollum would have to improve quite a bit as a run defender. He doesn’t lack physicality, but his technique is currently pretty sloppy, and his lack of strength shows up when trying to bring larger runners down.

With that said, as McCollum fills out his frame and receives better coaching, that shouldn’t be too difficult a fix, as he has the necessary want-to.

He also has a lot of rare abilities that could make him an excellent safety. He has excellent ball skills and was able to consistently make big plays defensively while at Sam Houston State. He also has an excellent feeling for zone coverage, which is where he looks most instinctive.

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